The tai folk religion

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The Tai folk religion (Satsana Phi or Ban Phi) is a religious belief of certain national Thai groups.

The Lao people, the Thai Ahom people, the Shan people, the Dai people, the Tai Khamti, the Isan people and the Thais of Thailand contain people who practice the Tai folk religion. The creed is based on animism and polytheism (belief in several gods), and includes shamanism and ancestor worship.

The people of Lao, Lao Lum and Lao Lom are mostly Buddhists, while Lao Teung and Lao Sung follow folk religions. Buddhism in Laos also includes animistic beliefs.

Belief System

In the context of Satsana Phi’s beliefs, gods and various deities may patronize buildings, localities, or objects. Deities can be all sorts of spirits, for example, the spirits of ancestors. By interacting with living people, deities can protect or harm them. Urban residents seek the mercy of the Guardian Deities by glorifying them at meetings and offering them food.

The pantheon of gods of Satsana Phi includes Hindu and non-Hindu gods, who are called Piftan. They are ubiquitous, and some of them have a connection to the universal elements: air, earth, fire and water. 

The belief system includes 32 protector spirits, called “Hwang”. While important events occur in a person’s life (for example, a wedding, new job, etc.), the Bachi ceremony helps him/her to strengthen or restore the connection with the Hwang spirits, since its weakening leads to illness and failure. During the ceremony, all 32 Hwang spirits return to the individual, providing health, good luck and well-being. At the ceremony, cotton threads are tied around the participant’s wrist. It is believed that these will help to hold the spirits inside. The Bachi ritual is performed for different purposes, for example, to greet guests in your home, to help in recovery from illness and as a thank you. Among the people of Lao Lum, this rite is the main constituent at baby naming ceremonies and weddings.

In ordinary life, near to every building, there are special houses of spirits, which are small, covered structures installed on an elevation. They are miniature shrines that serve as a shelter for protector spirits. In difficult times, people ask them for advice or help. Deities living in forests and mountains are considered natural.

Angels or spirits of ancestors who have reached different stages of life (twada) help to protect people. Those who were bad in past incarnations or died tragically are evil spirits.

Deities who live in certain places (e.g., houses, rivers, forests, etc.) are neither good nor evil. But by making offerings, a person can get help from them.


Priests called mofis are shamans, ritual specialists who can communicate with gods, the spirits, and the world of the dead. To do this, they use trance and objects endowed with supernatural powers. Shamans perform rituals of Phi Fa and Bachi. People consult with them when failures and misfortunes befall them. Shamans are present at religious festivals.

The tai folk religion


Ceremonies begin with offering the gods chicken meat and rice wine. After the gods take away the spiritual essence of the food, the people can eat it. The ritual is performed by the head of the family or a person who is interested in receiving the favor of the gods. In villages, people choose one person among the religious elders, who helps to choose the date of a wedding and other important events.

It is believed that the villages of Laos are under the protection of Phi Ban, for the mercy of which it is necessary to make annual offerings. At the time of the ritual, the village is closed to strangers. Earlier, they would have sacrificed a water buffalo. The ceremony is held to unite the villagers and confirm the territorial boundaries.

People who profess Satsana Phi worship their ancestors. Tai Ahom reveres Phi Dam or, as they call him, the ancestor of the gods. The people of Khmu revere house spirits, and they are wary of spirits of wild places.


  1. Ahom Religion. The followers also believe in Phi, Hwang spirits, and they revere ancestors. During the ancestor worship ceremony, they offer chicken meat and rice beer, known as “lao”, to the spirits.
  2. Lamet Religion. The beliefs of the Lamet people are similar. Every village has its shaman who is responsible for sacrifices to the gods. He looks after existing houses and supervises the construction of new ones. After the death of the shaman, one of his sons becomes his successor. The village council consisting of only of married men decides exactly who. If the shaman has no sons, then one of his brother’s sons becomes the successor.

The Lamet also revere their ancestors, whose spirits dwell in their homes. People coordinate all affairs with them. The altar of ancestors and the pediment of the house are decorated with skulls and horns of buffaloes.  In order not to offend the spirits, the Lamet observe various taboos on behavior in the house.

Ethnic groups which preach the Tai folk religion believe that spirits live in almost everything that surrounds them. Respect and reverence for nature, living and inanimate beings help people achieve the desired harmony in life.